Once you dig into their creative canon, it's easy to see why the Shaw Brothers have become a major fanboy favorite. Even those not predisposed to enjoying martial arts would find their motion pictures wonderful examples of imaginative action and visual aplomb. Sadly, some would also argue that the duo are grossly overrated, such a sentiment usually the result of watching some poorly dubbed, badly framed version of one of their classics. DVD has done the Hong Kong pioneers a major cinematic service. Distributors like The Weinstein Company, Genius Products, and Image Entertainment have used the format's preservationist quality to release many of the Shaw films in their original form. This means proper aspect ratios, a return to the original Mandarin/Cantonese dialogue, and newly commissioned subtitles. A perfect illustration of this attention to detail is the 1976 swordplay epic The Magic Blade. Nothing more than some sensational swashbuckling coupled with a standard revenge/honor plot, this exciting extravaganza is the kind of kung fu spectacle that spawned us geeks in the first place.
One year after defeating rival Yen Nan-fei in a duel, master swordsman Fu Hung Hsieh is back to settle the vendetta. Sadly for his foe, death is the only way to pay the bill. As they battle, the men soon learn that they are part of an assassination plot by notorious underground mobster Master Yu. Seems Yen Nan-fei owes the criminal a favor, and Fu Hung Hsieh is the only one who can enter Peacock Mansion and get the elusive, all powerful Peacock Dart. Yu wants it to control all of swordplay. When the owner of the horrific device dies, Fu is left to defend the dead man's daughter. Naturally, Yu is not happy with the way things turn out, and he sends his top five killers, along with the evil Devil's Grandma, to destroy the traveling trio. In between battles and deadly double crosses, all paths lead to a showdown between our humble hero and the big boss bad guy. Yet when our hero finally discovers who he's really fighting, the truth may be too hard to face.
Considering it stars Lung Ti, of New One-Armed Swordsman, 5 Masters of Death, and Drunken Master II fame, and Lieh Lo, of such seminal Hong Kong staples as Five Fingers of Death, Chinese Connection II, and Mad Monkey Kung Fu, and was directed with substantial flair by industry journeymen Yuen Chor, it's no surprise then that The Magic Blade is so satisfying. There's no greater thrill than seeing two skilled artists at the top of their game wailing on each other with reckless rapier abandon. If you like metal on metal manstuff, if you think pirates are p*ssys for the way they handle a saber, if you long for the days when grudges were settled with gentleman like thrusts and hurricane-like parries, this is the film for you. The Shaws understood that their audiences, both international and homegrown, liked their narratives melodramatic, cheesy, and just a wee bit convoluted. How Yen Nan-fei and Fu Hung Hseih manage to get out of every scrape they face becomes somewhat laughable by the end of story, and a few of the touches are downright surreal (the Devil's Grandmother peddles pies made out of...people! Sweeny Todd style!). Yet The Magic Blade fulfills all the requirement of the genre - it has amazing stuntwork and an almost mystical sense of what makes for eye-popping action.
When we first meet our potential heroes, they are doing what kung fu masters do best - using their weapons to cause invisible damage to everything around them. Yen twists his sword around and, suddenly, building bits break apart and fall to the ground. Fu does even fancier moves, and branches split from their overhanging woodland home. It's all very weird and unsettling while remaining par for the carefully choreographed course. The fighting here is ferocious and incredibly addictive. Chor obviously realized this, so for every moment of Asian tradition or personal ethos, we get 10 of individuals kicking the snot out of each other. It's electric. And what makes it all the more effective is the recognizability of the stars. Both Lung Ti and Leih Lo use their past performances and considerable star power as a means of adding weight to their roles, and it's clear they have learned a lot in the process. They are enigmatic without being mean, authoritative without resorting to random acts of violence. Indeed, martial arts movies like this one may be the most moral massacre films ever.
Of course, if you pay close attention to the riffs Chor is tossing out, you'll laugh at yourself for missing the homage point sooner. If the poncho doesn't give it away, the surreal stoicism will. What's clear is that The Magic Blade is nothing more than a spaghetti western with a different type of noodle as its base. The opening offers one of the most obvious clues. As a narrator discusses the desolate, quiet nature of Phoenix Town (the only time we hear this voice), a windswept sandstorm blows through the village. All we need is a few tumbleweeds and Jack Elam's cockeyed stare, and we'd be parked in Sergio Leone backlot. Even some of the taboo-busting tenants of the genre - children as threats/victims, the earnest beating of villainous women - make it over to the East intact. For those looking for a little more spice, Chor even tosses in some toplessness near the end to give the already testosterone heavy audience more fuel for their raging...attention span. While it tries to lay on the schmaltz (Fu helps a sick prostitute) and philosophical malarkey (Fu is Yu, and Yu are Fu...huh?) The Magic Blade maintains its devotion to the foil with flying kick colors. It may not be the best wuxia film out there, it certainly defines what made Shaw Brothers and their studio so great.
While a review of the content is crucial to appreciating what The Magic Blade has to offer, what many already clued in coverts will want to know is - how are the tech specs? After all, many Hong Kong titles - especially ones from two and three decades ago - suffer from shoddy mastering and even worse OAR issues. Thankfully, Image has done an amazing job with this disc. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is pristine, without any major defects or dirt. The colors are bright and the visual luxuriant. The Shaws spared no expense on their sets, maximizing the dollars for optimal production value, and The Magic Blade is no exception. The whole film looks sumptuous.
Another bone of contention for Hong Kong movie fans is the lame, usually limited English only soundtracks. Nothing is more unrealistic than a Mandarin leading man speaking like Lawrence Tierney. Image sticks with the original Asian track, and gives us some excellent subtitles so we can follow along. While some of the musical cues sound suspicious (the Shaws were notorious for borrowing sonic backdrops from classic Hollywood films), the entire aural package is excellent.
Image slips a little in this department, using trailers and a photo gallery as the only added content here. While it would be nice to see some information on the stars, the studio, or the minds behind the production, the lack of significant bonus features really doesn't affect the film itself. It alone is well worth your hard earned coinage.
It's clear that, when it comes to premiere balls to the wall ass kicking, no one did it better than the Shaws. They used imagination and chutzpah to churn out endless variations on the one against an army action epic, and with each movie, their productions probed the very limits of the genre. The Magic Blade get a Highly Recommended rating, if for no other reason that the sheer number of fights scenes present. There must be a ratio of 20 to 1, swordplay to dialogue here. Toss in some moments of mindless gratuity and a little blood, and you've got overflowing nerd fodder, plain and simple. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and The Wachowski's have been scamming from these Asian auteurs for far too long. If you want to experience the real Hong Kong deal, give something like The Magic Blade a try. It's guaranteed to turn you into a fanatic within the first 30 minutes...if not sooner.